'Dr Dogs' light up lives of special-needs children

Regular visits from specially trained 'Dr Dogs' help children with intellectual disabilities learn how to make friends and get along with others

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 November, 2013, 4:44am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 November, 2013, 4:44am

The children shouted excitedly as they hugged and patted the dogs that were visiting their school.

One of them, eight-year-old Tsui Hiu-fung, whispered "I love you" in the animal's ear.

The furry visitors to the Hong Chi Winifred Mary Cheung Morninghope School for children with intellectual disabilities were "Dr Dogs", provided to the school and about 60 other organisations by the Animals Asia Foundation.

"They enjoy the intimacy with the dogs very much. Language is not necessary. Many of them are weak in language skills," Esther Chan Choi-wan, a social worker at the school, said.

The two Dr Dogs - 11-year-old Donna and seven-year-old Oscar - were visiting with owner Pinky Fok Yan-yin. Donna has been visiting the school for five years and Oscar started a bit later.

About 250 dogs have passed the foundation's Dr Dog examination - proving that they are friendly and can tolerate excited people shouting, hugging them and pulling their tails - and about half of these are active visitors, Marnie Yau, the foundation's Dr Dog programme manager, said.

Chan said the children were always asking when the dogs would come. Spending time with the animals had become a reward to motivate the children to behave well, she said.

"The children feel accepted. Dr Dogs make them feel they have a friend," she said. "Some of them do not know how to get along with people. We teach them step by step to love the dogs and other people."

Operation Santa Claus, an annual charity drive jointly organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK, is raising funds for the foundation to provide 200 Dr Dog visits next year.

Apart from the Morninghope school, the dogs also visit organisations working with elderly patients with dementia and people in hospital.

Vennus Ho, a social worker with the Jockey Club Centre for Positive Ageing in Sha Tin, said the dogs brought joy to the elderly.

"Some of them can remember the dogs after just one encounter, and some can even remember their names although they come just once a month," Ho said.

"Considering that they may not be able to memorise the names of our staff - whom they meet for hours every week - that is very amazing."

Some at the moderate to late stages of dementia have difficulty speaking, but the Dr Dogs motivate them to smile and say simple words.

Holding and touching the dogs, combing their coats, and even just watching others playing happily with the dogs give them sensory stimulation and a chance to connect with the outside world, Ho said.



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